Education, gardening and the prospect of multispecies flourishing

By Tyler King

One sunny Saturday morning, I’m driving through the quiet suburban streets of Melbourne on route to meet Joseph* to talk about their wildlife garden. The neighbourhood is typical of suburban Australia – neat, manicured lawns coupled with low-maintenance trees and shrubs such as yuccas or box hedges. Turning the corner into Joseph’s street, I am awe struck by the vibrancy and diversity of one garden – it is completely overflowing with native Australian plants, bursts of blue, yellow and purple flowers all differing in form and function. Without looking at the house number, I know I’ve arrived at the right address.

Joseph is in his mid-forties, tanned, with an athletic build, which I take as representative of his 20 plus years working outdoors in natural resource management. After making a cup of coffee and having a chat inside, Joseph begins to show me around his front yard, talking me through his careful plant selection and garden design. Everything here is accounted for, from the Everlasting Daisies bursting over the footpath, to the water-tolerant plants nestled in the low-lying frog-bog.  As he’s showing me the native rosemary bushes, using the Latin names I’ll quickly forget, I notice some native blue banded bees buzzing around the native purple lilies. I know that these bees have a mutual relationship with these plants, which require vibrations of up to 300 times a second to release the pollen from the anthers.

This space is alive, no doubting that – an oasis that’s allowing for multispecies flourishing in a suburb that’s lacking in any biodiversity from what I’ve observed so far driving through Joseph’s neighbourhood.

1: Joseph’s native Australian Garden, tucked away in suburban Melbourne

In this garden I am reminded of anthropologist Natasha Myer’s scholarship on plants and gardening. Myer’s work examines how gardens are “systems of expression”, where particular values, politics, aesthetics and desires are all being performed within these spaces. By rejecting the homogenous aesthetics of the neighbourhood, and displaying the vibrancy and diversity of native vegetation, Joseph’s garden is expressing his desire for that the city should be a more biodiverse space.

The shift towards formal wildlife gardening has been a relatively recent evolution within Australian cities, gaining considerable support from local councils to encourage and promote local biodiversity. Resources, such as booklets and Facebook pages, are coupled with online ‘webinars’ and other educational events to engage the community with what species they could expect in their backyard when they begin to create more wildlife-friendly gardens.

The importance of educators within this space is invaluable in regard to getting local residents to connect more with their local greenspaces and backyards. Councils and community groups regularly have different talks and events from a variety of experts, ranging from ecologists discussing rare orchids to pollination tours through local nature reserves.

One educator I spoke to, Ricardo*, works in the sustainable gardening sector and has been running webinars on behalf of councils for the last few years. While Ricardo’s expertise is growing fruits and vegetables, specifically with pesticide-free and organic gardening approaches, much of the educational content has expanded to include presentations on native Australian biodiversity. The most popular webinar over the last two years, Ricardo informs me, is how to create bee-friendly gardens. Curious about this, I ask Ricardo about the increased interest in bees and other pollinators. He stresses the importance of moving beyond the idea of bees being ‘trendy’, towards creating relations in gardens that are more concrete:

“I think part of the challenge is to move it away from being a fad to actually something that is a little bit longer term. So, I’m all supportive of the idea of the bee hotels and stuff, but the way I talk about them is that … they’re there for us, not for them. They’re for us to be able to … observe what’s happening and that they won’t work if they’re an island in the middle of an ocean.”

The contributions that people are making for bees can therefore be still be more human-centred and ‘feel good’ approaches instead of something that is actually going to be beneficial to bees. But this is part of the educational process for local residents – going beyond the surface level and digging into those deeper multispecies entanglements that are constantly being made and unmade within gardens. Ricardo notes:

“There’s a lot going on in the world that we can’t do a lot about ecologically. So, it’s about getting people to understand that a garden’s not just a garden, it’s a part of the environment. And it’s a powerful place for people to engage and to make a difference.”

So, for Ricardo, his educational practice is wanting people to firstly recognise these entanglements, and also recognising that cities are not separate from the more-than-human world – troubling binaries that the urban environment is a purely human domain. Wildlife gardening practices can therefore be seen as political forms of expression, where ‘making kin’ with multispecies communities can trouble urban/nature binaries.

In their 2015 peer-review paper, Africa Taylor and Victoria Picini-Ketchabaw introduce the concept of ‘multispecies pedagogies’, which they introduce as a way to explore the conditions of possibility for interspecies learning which moves beyond autonomous individual human development and education. They argue that multispecies pedagogies are built upon relations, where they stress the interdependencies with the more-than-human world, and they ponder the ethical and political implications of entangled human and nonhuman lives.

I see Ricardo’s work in the educational space as encompassing this pedagogical approach – re-situating the human within broader ecological systems. There is an emphasis of not ‘favouring’ one species in the garden, with Ricardo pushing for a recognition of relationality within the garden space – where bees are just one actor within a broader multispecies community. For gardeners like Joseph, these practices can be seen as ‘ecological systems of expression’, a display of ecological citizenship where species can thrive in otherwise fragmented landscapes.

Another environmental educator focused on native pollinators is Kelly*, who utilises hands-on workshops by getting participants to think about how to create suitable habitats for Australia’s native bees. Bee hotels for solitary bees are now widely available in major hardware stores, however they often lack the depths required for bees to lay a suitable number of larvae. To present this, one tool that Kelly uses to educate workshop participants is a bee observation block. As Kelly states:

“This as an educational tool is powerful because I’m showing to people what’s going on, but also why we require the long deep tunnels, because it’s showing you they’ll always have an empty cavity to protect themselves from wasps”.

2: Kelly’s Bee Observation Block. Educational tools such as this are excellent at engaging people about native bees

By engaging those in the workshop with the ‘ins and outs’ of bee biology in simple, tangible ways, there is a different level of engagement and knowledge that can grow out of this practical experience. Kelly’s workshops also involve making bee hotels out of materials found in the garden or in the household, using the pruning from passionfruit cane and some tin cans. As Kelly notes:

“And again, it’s just sort of saying … you don’t have to go out and buy anything. Everyone can have one of these in the garden. Make it for friends, make it with kids, make it with the grandkids. It’s … so easy to make. Potentially … I could have one hundred new bees next spring in there. And they’re going to come back to your garden. That’s why you need to plant more flowers.”

3: Kelly’s homemade bee hotels are easy, accessible and contribute to solitary bee populations in urban environments

This hands-on pedagogical approach also helps to move beyond participants having a passing concern about the plight of bees, to being provided with the knowledge, resources and skills to respond in practical and meaningful ways within their own garden spaces. Emphasising the relationality between humans, gardens, bees and other insects is where these multispecies pedagogies can truly flourish. 

The importance of educators within the environmental field is vital in connecting urban residents with their more-than-human communities. Understanding the impacts that humans can have on pollinators and biodiversity more generally can alter practices such as pesticide usage, moving towards more care-full approaches in sharing space with a multitude of critters that also call the city home.

* Names have been changed


Tyler King is a PhD candidate and associate research fellow in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. Tyler’s research explores the entanglements between bees, people and plants in the urban environment, with a focus on how humans care for these multispecies communities through public education and ecological restoration. His research project aims to inform more ethical and care-full approaches in environmental management, conservation and planning.

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